Why the Support of Friends and Family Can Make a Difference
Just being there can make a difference
“...one of the best things or one of the most helpful things was that the Principal at Sian’s school, came Sunday morning with some flowers and they were bereaved parents themselves from about 12 or 14 years before and they gave us probably a little bit of a rundown of what to expect and how we were going to feel and that we would have people say silly things to us, that there would be people who would ignore us… I was a bit shocked that they would come around and talk to us. I would probably put myself in the group that would probably not say anything to a friend, but now I would be the opposite. I would try to emulate what they did for us…now I would make an effort and go visit even if it is to just sit with them…not say nothing or not do nothing. My advice now is even if you don’t know what to say, just be present and be with them…”1
In our sophisticated Western society, many of us are not good at dealing with death, and often we feel uncomfortable and ‘out of our depth’ when a friend suddenly becomes traumatised and bereaved, as occurs when a child dies suddenly and unexpectedly.
Every family who experiences the sudden and unexpected death of a baby or young child will be deeply and profoundly affected, both by the loss of their child, and for many, by the trauma of discovering their child dead. We know from our experience that the strength and effectiveness of the support they receive from their family and friends is the single most important thing assisting the healing process. So the support you can give will make a difference.
“...if you are talking about what friends can do for you, I would say… just be there. We had a friend come around the Monday night, Lachlan had passed away earlier Sunday morning and on the Monday night, we had pizza together and sat down and watched TV together on the couch and we would have been terrible company and we barely said a word and just having someone there was comforting…”1
“eight years later and a phone call from a friend just to say, ‘It’s Lachlan’s anniversary Thursday, isn’t it?’ What a relief, as he is still remembered.”
Often, the first contact with a friend or family member whose baby or young child has died is the most difficult. But making this first contact is so important. Even if you are feeling awkward, uncomfortable or afraid, take a deep breath and then take the initiative. Drop by your friend or family member’s house to let them know that you care. Or telephone and say something like, “I don’t know what to say, but I wanted you to know that I was thinking of you”.
On your first visit, you will probably need to say little. Tell them you are very sorry, and that you will try to be there if they need you. Just a hug may help.
Listen, let them tell you what they are feeling, and accept this even if you do not understand it. Try not to say things like, “I know how you feel”, or “You must feel miserable”.
Listening and trying to understand…
“just remember we are going through the worst scenario of all scenarios in our life at the moment and we are not thinking straight and we really don’t know what we want…”1
“...there’s a wide range of what people will do, some will get it right and some will get it wrong…but some people are very good at it and that’s what I found, some of the best people are the ones who actually spoke to me about it in a sensitive way…just the opportunity to talk to people, also you need to trust those people… ”
“It surprised me some friends who probably weren’t quite really that close really stepped up and became and were there for you and other friends who thought might have, didn’t…”1
One of the most important things that you can do for a friend or family member whose child has died is simply to listen. Some parents feel the need to go over and over what happened, and need someone who is willing to listen to them. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, friends or family members try to change the subject when the parents begin talking about their dead child. While you may think it will be helpful to try to get their minds off their child, it usually isn’t.
Some parents feel more comfortable not talking about their dead child, but may still need someone just to be there with them. So try to accept silence, too. Be aware, though, that your friend or family member may change their mind, and may want to talk about their child at some other time.
Every experience is unique, and every person experiences a unique grieving process. While their behaviour may seem strange to you – for example, if they cry constantly, even long after the death, or if they rarely, if ever, cry – try to accept it as a part of their grieving process. Do not be surprised at the things parents may do. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and anything that comforts parents is normal. Try not to say things like, “You ought to be feeling better by now”- people heal in their own time.
“Of all the remarks made at the time of my son’s death to comfort me, my friend who said ‘I cannot imagine how you must be feeling’ came the closest to acknowledging my unique pain.”
Luke, 17.2.90 – 29.6.90
Memories of a baby or young child who has died can sometimes bring tears or anger to parents. But memories can also bring smiles. Don’t avoid talking about the baby or young child out of fear of reminding the parents of their pain (they haven’t forgotten!). By mentioning the child’s name, and recalling his or her special, endearing qualities, you are allowing the parents to share their memories.
The child who has died can never be replaced; he or she will always be a special part of the family. So try not to say things like, “At least you have other children” or “You can always have another baby”. The other children are important, and having another child may be something the parents choose to do. But the child who has died will never be forgotten or replaced.
This article was prepared using extracts from To Family and Friends: You can Make a Difference2 and quotes from participants of a series of workshops and interviews with bereaved fathers held in 2015.1 The full text of the booklet is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 26/9/22
- Quote from participants of a series of workshops and interviews with bereaved fathers held in 2015 at Red Nose Grief and Loss, Malvern, Victoria, and Red Nose Grief and Loss offices, Australia.
- Bereaved Parents & SIDS and Kids. (2000?). To Family and Friends: You can Make a Difference: A booklet by Parents whose Baby and Young Child has Died Suddenly and Unexpectedly (T. Ross, R. Quayle & P. Jones, Illus.). Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids.